On Presidents Day, the United States honors its founding fathers, despite the fact that many of those fathers were responsible for the institution of slavery. Michel Martin of NPR has a conversation with historian Kenneth C. Davis.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This weekend, in honor of President’s Day, we would want to discuss the manner in which we remember the men who have served in the highest position in our country, as well as the reasons for doing so, or how we revisit our recollections, depending on the context. We are in an era of reevaluating presidents, but when we talk about some of their less laudable attributes – for example, the fact that 10 of the first 12 U.S. presidents owned and enslaved people – the conversation can get heated. This happened two years ago when the San Francisco Board of Education decided to take names like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln off of its schools and then reversed itself, or it happened last month when House Republicans reintroduced the Mount Rushmore Pro We are about to celebrate yet another holiday that extols the virtues of our presidents, and in preparation for this event, we were wondering if there is a more effective way to learn the reality behind presidents who have been the subject of myth, but who were also real people and were products of the eras in which they served. president’s day
Because Kenneth C. Davis is such a well-known history writer and is famous for his “Don’t Know Much” series, in which he aims to make history understandable to people of various backgrounds, we felt it would be a good idea to ask him about this. His works include the best-selling book “Don’t Know Much About History,” as well as “In the Shadow of Liberty: The Secret History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives,” both of which have been published. And he is present among us at the moment. Thank you for coming, Kenneth C. Davis. We are so grateful that you could be with us once more.
KENNETH C DAVIS: Michel, it is always a delight to spend time in your company. I am grateful that you have invited me.
MARTIN: Permit me to begin by inquiring about the manner in which you conceived of these figures when you were younger. And as you’ve written more about them, have you seen any shifts in the opinions that you previously held?
DAVIS: Sure. And when I was in school as a youngster – and I’m talking about the 1960s and even the early 1970s here – George Washington and the majority of the other presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, were still up on their pedestals. It wasn’t until the 1970s that we started talking about the reality that these marbleized sculptures, as we knew them, the faces on our money, were slaveholders. This coincided with the beginning of a new generation of scholarship, which began to emerge about the same time. And I’m quite sure that wasn’t covered in any of the textbooks that I used in school.
And when I sat down to write “Don’t Know Much About History,” which was published more than three decades ago, I was really, profoundly interested in answering this question: how did these men, who defend this idea that all men are created equal and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – how did those men say those words and then go home to plantations, businesses, and homes that were completely dependent upon enslaved labor? This is what I mean when I talk about the “great American contradiction,” which is the fact that a nation that was founded on freedom was also founded in chains. And there is no getting around that reality.
MARTIN: Do you remember how you felt when you first started trying to come to terms with all of these facts? Did you find it unsettling? And what are your thoughts on that matter?
DAVIS: I don’t think it was so much disturbing to me as it was the realization that, you know, growing up when I did, the idea that this story of the Washington who cut down the cherry tree and couldn’t tell a lie was a complete fabrication wasn’t so much of a shock to me. I don’t think it was so much disturbing to me as it was the realization that, you know, growing up when I did, it was more of a realization. As my interest in writing about this topic as a historian grew, one of the things that struck me as the most shocking was the fact that so many people still believed it. In reality, it became intertwined with the legendary foundation mythology of the history of the United States. And throughout my life, I’ve never been interested in simply tearing down statues or myths and stories; rather, I’ve always been more concerned with being accurate and human.
MARTIN: As I was saying earlier, your book “Don’t Know Much About History” is a great bestseller, and it’s sort of a fundamental work in the field. It is still available in printed form. I mean, there have been millions of copies sold, all right? Since then, you’ve published numerous books that delve even further into the daily experiences of people who were held in slavery. The book “In the Shadow of Liberty: The Secret History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives” comes to mind specifically. I would appreciate it if you could tell me a little bit about those five different lives. So, enlighten me a little bit more on that subject. Yet, I am also interested in learning whether or not those works have been well accepted by the public.
DAVIS: To answer your question, absolutely, in a number of different ways. It has been around six years since “In the Shadow of Liberty” was published after it was written. That was the direct result of my worry and questioning over this fundamental conflict in the history of the United States. My first plan was to look at it from the perspective of those men themselves, including what they had to say, what they had written, and what they had done. And at a different point, primarily in my conversations with young people across the country talking about the Civil War and talking about presidents and talking about slavery, I had the thought, “I really need to flip the narrative here and look at this from the perspective of the enslaved themselves.”
MARTIN: Why do you think some people are so resistant to even accepting that this is a part of the lives of these other people? Or do you suppose that they’re worried that there won’t be any heroes left to save the day?
DAVIS: I really do wish it were that easy. I don’t believe that to be the case. When people talk about children being embarrassed upon learning this, I believe that the first thing that we need to do is be honest and ask ourselves, “Which children would feel such shame?” And it is abundantly evident that their concern is that white youngsters would feel guilty. It is certainly part of a wishfulness, perhaps, to have a history that is the way we had the past in the 1950s, and you know, that is something that we do not have. Furthermore, we are aware that the history in question is not only unreliable but also prejudiced. And it mirrored a white racist and patriotic mindset, which many people argue we are no longer allowed to teach. But, there are those people who are determined to cling to a convenient story despite the fact that it is not accurate.
MARTIN: But what do you say to individuals who are concerned, or at least state that they are concerned, that telling these stories to people, especially at a young age, causes them to not love their country as much as they ought to love their country? I suppose the point of the argument is that we can’t be patriotic without having national heroes to look up to, and that by doing so, we lower our estimation of those heroes. What are your thoughts in response to that?
DAVIS: I argue that it is really, incredibly necessary and valuable to comprehend those documents that these individuals wrote because they still truly ring true. I say this because those documents still really ring true today. In spite of the fact that Jefferson was perhaps the most egregious illustration of this paradox, the ideas that he wrote down, namely that all men are created equal, that we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments can only govern with the consent of the governed, are really fundamentally important ideas that have withstood the test of time. These are ideas that have endured because they are so fundamentally important. And he was aware of that.
Many individuals will say something along the lines of, “Well, they were men of their day, and slavery was what they grew up with, and that was their world.” That is correct. Yet they also realized that slavery was a contradiction to the ideas that they were fighting for, particularly Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. These three in particular were the ones who acknowledged that slavery was a contradiction. In a letter dated 1787 and addressed to one of George Washington’s close associates, Washington states that “no one wishes more than I do for the abolition of it.” In addition, all he asks is for somebody to devise a strategy for him. Unfortuitously, at the height of his power and popularity, he did virtually little to work toward abolishing slavery in the world. presidents’ day, president”s day, president day
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I want to know if, despite all you now know about them, you still admire them.
DAVIS: I do. And I guess, you know, with the experience of a few years, the wisdom of reality has helped to temper my admiration. You will be set free when you face the truth. And having an awareness of what they achieved and the inconsistencies that they had to live with in no way diminishes the remarkable achievements that they attained.
MARTIN: Kenneth C. Davis has a background in history. He is the author of a number of books that have become bestsellers. His most recent book is titled “Wonderful Short Books: A Year of Reading, Quickly,” and it was published in 2018. We are really grateful that you could be here today, Mr. Kenneth C. Davis. presidents’ day, president”s day, president day
DAVIS: I am extremely grateful to you for inviting me. It has been a wonderful experience. And make sure everyone knows that learning about history is not dull in any way.
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